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Sonoma County airport travel plummets during January shutdown

Travel through the Sonoma County airport fell sharply in the month of January as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order extended through most of the month, showing that a majority of residents took heed and put off heading out of town.

Just a hair over 6,000 people passed through Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport during the first month of 2021 — a nearly 84% slide from the same time last year, before the pandemic took hold. The total — the lowest since May — also represented an almost 45% decline from the prior month, when the governor asked Californians during the first week of December to stay home for the year-end holidays to help limit the spread of the coronavirus during a peak in transmissions.

“That closure of the economy is highly reflective in these numbers. People were doing what was requested, and not moving and traveling,” said Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout. “The 6,000 was lower than I was thinking it would be. It was noticeable in the drop-off compared to November and December.”

After only October, November was the airport’s second-busiest month during the pandemic, with nearly 18,000 passengers. That total was less than half the monthly number recorded in 2019, but is the closest the regional air hub has gotten to pre-coronavirus travel patterns since the bottom fell out from under the global airline industry last April.

As the local weather again begins to warm, coronavirus infections fall and more people are able to obtain vaccinations for COVID-19, Stout said he is confident that residents and visitors will again take to the skies.

“People I talk to want to travel, and get away from home and not do the ‘staycation’ anymore,” he said. “And if not a vacation, they want to go see their relatives and family. The business side (of travel) is sounding like it’s going to be a slower return.”

Sonoma County airport currently offers between three and five flights per day, with service from Alaska Airlines — the airport’s main air carrier — and American Airlines. Alaska offers direct routes to and from Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. American for now flies nonstop to just Phoenix, with plans to relaunch direct service to and from Dallas/Fort Worth in early April.

Meanwhile, United Airlines, the other of the airport’s three carriers, suspended service in October, with intentions of bringing back its routes between Santa Rosa and Denver, as well as the short flight to and from San Francisco, in late March. Those plans have now been postponed to early June, Stout said.

“United I knew had some iffy-ness to it,” he said. “It all depended on vaccinations and the economy opening back up. With the recent lockdowns, it was not a surprise seeing that they got pushed.”

Emails over two days to a United Airlines spokesman were not answered.

By early May, the airport could see the return to as many as 11 daily flights, including American Airlines adding back a second nonstop flight to Phoenix and direct service to Los Angeles. Alaska Airlines is currently expected to relaunch nonstop trips to and from Portland, as well as Orange County, by the middle of March.

“So that is definitely a big improvement and we’ll take it. And hopefully we’ll see a rebound of passengers, and hopefully vaccinations and start opening up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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